Cumbria, Northern England
It felt ridiculous to fear a dead man, but as Cormac walked the cold, deserted passageways of his father’s underground stronghold, he did exactly that. Habit, he supposed. But dead was dead. The only ghosts Cormac might encounter lurked not in any actual darkened corner but within his own mind. The ghosts of memory. Of fear, pain, sorrow. Loneliness.
He ducked a low, rough hewn beam as he rounded a sharp turn. Either the long-ago people who had carved these tunnels deep into the mountain had been considerably shorter than Cormac’s five-foot-nine or they hadn’t the time—or perhaps permission—for comfort.
His boot slipped when the passageway, slick with ice, took a steep downward slant. Rather than slow, he increased pace. With every second the air felt a little thinner, smelled a little ranker; and the walls, already close enough, seemed to push in closer still. If not for the bargain with Murphy, Cormac would never have returned to Fiend’s Fell.
The temperature was icy enough to chill even an American’s beer, but Cormac was sweating beneath his jacket, the cotton of his shirt sticking uncomfortably to his back. It was absurd, this anxiety. As far as his Sight could tell, the stronghold was deserted. However large its current population might be, all must have accompanied his father to Orkney, and thus they either lay dead at the Ring of Brodgar or were on the run from there. Should any seek to return, it would require more time than Cormac intended to spend.
No, there was nothing to fear here tonight from his father’s thegnas—his followers—nor from the man himself. With the memory, the feel of Idris Cathmor’s death but two hours fresh, Cormac ought to know better than anyone.
His hands itched, their nerves not yet recovered from being conduits for so much power; his throat burned from shouting. Screaming, if he cared to be accurate (and he did not). He had put genuine emotion on display several times already this night, which amounted to several times too many.
When he’d seen Thia about to run headlong into the deadly protection spells that kept them captive within Brodgar. And again when he had held her while her body struggled to adjust to the Cailleach’s newly-introduced powers. And, worst of all, when the Brigantium had used him as a conduit to kill Idris.
That had been the most public instance, no question. Even as battle raged throughout the Ring, Cormac and his father and their dueling storms had attracted a good deal of attention. It had been then, when Idris was down with Cormac’s hands wrapped around his throat that the—
He shuddered, tamped down the memory before it could fully rise.
The Brigantium had seized the opportunity to rid the world of a perceived evil. He couldn’t fault their perception or their decision. It was their method that currently gave him trouble.
The knowledge that, if they hadn’t taken control from him in those last moments, he might have done the deed himself did not sit too well, either.
Guilt. It didn’t eat at him, as the saying went. No. It invaded, thickened the blood and turned marrow cold. Threatened to transform him utterly if left unchecked.
He had nothing against it. Hell, he deserved it, did he not? Guilt over Idris, and over Thia too.
He rubbed his chest, the unconscious gesture doing nothing to ease the ache summoned by her name.
After a sequence of counterintuitive turns, Cormac entered a hexagonal antechamber.
Disbelief hit hard.
The doors to the most secure storerooms were wide open. Every single one. The wards that should have shimmered in Cormac’s Sight were gone.
He didn’t need to shine the light of his electric torch inside to see that every room had been emptied, yet he did. Nor did he need to enter them one by one, yet he did.
Nothing of significance remained. And, given the lack of any energy remnants—remnants that should have overwhelmed, considering what had been held within—the rooms had been magically scoured. He braced his hands on either side of an empty niche at the back of the room and dropped his head forward, his brow pressing onto the stone. Eyes closed, he breathed in the dank, familiar smell of failure.
The Achill Bell, promised to Declan Murphy upon pain of death, was gone.
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